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Kombucha Brewing: The Process

Photo credit: Mgarten (Wikimedia Commons)

Photo credit: Mgarten (Wikimedia Commons)

At first glance, making kombucha sounds straightforward. After all, kombucha is fermented tea, which tells all you need to know about making it: take some tea and ferment it. Unfortunately, brewing kombucha is not that simple, as evidenced by the plethora of information and recipes found on the Internet. For those who have ever contemplated or even decided to begin brewing kombucha for the first time, don’t let the wealth of kombucha information intimidate you. Here, we break down the process of kombucha brewing and experimentation, supplying you with the scientific rationale for each step. Understanding the science of each stage may allow for a more successful and experimental brewing without having to rely on a recipe.

1. Making the tea base.

The tea base is nothing more than sweetened tea, so it is easy enough to make. However, the amount of tea and sugar used will affect the flavor of the resulting kombucha. The exact proportion of water to tea to sugar can be modified to suit personal tastes. For the varieties of teas and sugars suitable for making kombucha, check out our previous post on the ingredients that go into making kombucha.

In general, for every 1 cup of boiled water, steep 1 tea bag or 1 ounce of loose leaf tea; this should be left to steep for 3 – 5 minutes, with deviations depending on the type of tea and desired tea strength. Certain teas, such as green and white teas, have subtle flavor profiles that may result in a bland-tasting kombucha. To obtain a more concentrated flavor with delicate teas, use more tea bags, do multiple infusions, or combine the green or white teas with a more robust black tea.

If you use tea bags, adding more of them can help increase the amount of flavor compounds in the brewed tea, creating a more concentrated green or white tea flavor. Avoid steeping the teas for too long; steeping teas longer than the recommended time results in the extraction of more bitter compounds. This over-extraction will create a more bitter tea base. The same caution equally applies to loose leaf teas.

If you use loose leaf teas, multiple infusions will help concentrate the flavor without the risk of over-extraction. A proper method for multiple infusion involves steeping a large amount of tea leaves for 20 – 45 seconds in just enough hot water to cover the leaves. The brewed tea is removed, and another small amount of hot water is added to the leaves and steeped for another short amount of time. This can be repeated 3 – 15 times, depending on the type of tea. This method uses twice the amount of tea leaves with half the amount of hot water [1], essentially concentrating the flavor compounds that diffuse out of the tea leaves. Multiple infusions may not be as effective with tea bags; the tea fannings used for tea bags have small surface areas, and so most, if not all, of the flavor compounds will have quickly diffused into the water in the first steeping.

Sugar can be added to the boiling water before or after steeping the tea, as long as the sugar source completely dissolves. Typically, 1 cup of sugar is added for every 4 cups of boiled water.

2. First fermentation.

Once the tea is finished steeping and the sugar is dissolved, remove the tea bags or strain out the leaves – this is the completed tea base. Tossing the SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) into this freshly-completed tea base willy-nilly will negatively affect the fermentation process, as the microbes within SCOBY thrive best at specific temperatures and pH levels. To ensure a successful fermentation, the tea base has to be adjusted for temperature and pH create a suitable environment for the SCOBY.

  1. Optimum temperature. Recall that SCOBY is alive; wait for the tea base to cool down to at least below 90°F (32°C) before adding SCOBY. A hot tea base would destroy the SCOBY microorganisms, resulting in a complete lack of fermentation. Conversely, do not add SCOBY to a tea base that has been refrigerated to below room temperature, as this would encourage the microbes to go into a dormant state, leading to a very sluggish fermentation process. The optimal temperature to add the SCOBY is between 77°F (25°C) and 90°F (32°C); , as this is the range which SCOBY microorganisms such as Acetobacter and yeast grow best [2,3].
  2. Optimum pH. SCOBY bacteria are acidophiles, meaning that these bacteria thrive in acidic environments. Excluding herbal teas, the teas used for kombucha generally have low pH ranging from 2.9 to 6.3 [4,5]. While this is considered acidic, the pH of the tea base may not be at the optimal range for the Lactobacillus and Acetobacter that inhabit SCOBY, which thrive around pH 5.0 – 6.3 [6,7]. To remedy this, a starter liquid is added to the tea base, which is the liquid that the SCOBY was stored in. Since the starter liquid houses both Lactobacillus and Acetobacter, which produce acid by oxidizing sugar to lactic acid and ethanol to acetic acid, the starter contains a mixture of lactic and acetic acid at a buffered pH that is ideal for the SCOBY. In general, 1 cup of starter liquid is used for every 2 cups of tea base. If there is not enough starter liquid, then plain, store-bought kombucha can be used in lieu of the starter.

SCOBY is added to the tea base in a wide-mouthed container, often a glass jar, to allow for gas exchange and left to ferment for 7 to 10 days at room temperature. During this first fermentation, oxygen has to be abundantly available for Acetobacter, which requires oxygen to grow (it is an obligate anaerobe) [7]. However, leaving the container uncovered puts the kombucha at risk for contamination by fruit flies. Covering the jar with a tightly-woven cloth or paper towel and an elastic band can keep out fruit flies while permitting oxygen availability for the fermenting kombucha. The longer the fermentation period, the more vinegary the flavor and the lower the sugar content.

Kombucha undergoing the first fermentation. Photo credit: Amy Selleck (amyselleck/Flickr)

Kombucha undergoing the first fermentation. Photo credit: Amy Selleck (amyselleck/Flickr)

3. Remove the SCOBY.

To end the first fermenation, simply remove the SCOBY from the kombucha. From here, there are two options: reuse the SCOBY for another batch of kombucha or store it for later brewing.

Reuse: Make another tea base. For the starter liquid, it would be easiest to use the kombucha that the SCOBY was previously removed from.

Store: Store the SCOBY in a tea base/starter liquid mixture. This can be kept at room temperature for up to three weeks, depending on the volume of the storage mixture, before the microbes exhaust the nutrients. For longer storage, place the SCOBY mixture in the refrigerator. SCOBY become dormant in cold temperatures, but this does not mean the microbes cease activity altogether. Rather, in dormancy, cell division halts and the microbes’ metabolism slows significantly [9]. In storage, the SCOBY will continue to ferment its storage mixture, albeit at a slower rate than if left at room temperature. To maintain SCOBY viability, replenish the storage mixture every 4 – 6 weeks by removing 50 – 80% of the liquid and replacing that with new sweetened tea [8]. The main idea is to provide continuing fuel for the microorganisms. It is also possible to simply add ¼ cup sugar per quart of storage mixture every 4 – 6 weeks [8], but keep in mind that the dormant microbes are still carrying out cellular functions which require nutrients and water. The stored SCOBY will reduce the volume of its storage mixture, and so additional tea is required to prevent the storage mixture from drying up.

4. Second fermentation.

Pour the kombucha into bottles and cap them, leaving the bottles out at room temperature. If a flavored kombucha is desired, this is the step to add flavoring ingredients. Although SCOBY was removed at the end of the first fermentation, not all the microorganisms were attached to the cellulose matrix, especially if the microbes were newly-cloned during that previous fermentation period. There will still be kombucha microbes present to perform a second fermentation.

As this second fermentation occurs in a closed system, CO2 produced from the yeast cannot escape the kombucha as it did during the first fermentation. As a result, the kombucha becomes carbonated during this step. Further, the kombucha microbes will continue to metabolize any remaining sugar to produce lactic acid, acetic acid, ethanol, and CO2, so the kombucha will become less sweet but tangier.

After 1 to 3 days, depending on how quickly carbonation occurs, store the kombucha in the fridge. This stops fermentation and carbonation because the significantly decreased temperature causes the microbes to go into a dormant state. And voilá! You have your first batch of kombucha!

Photo credit: thedabblist (64636759@N07/Flickr)

Photo credit: thedabblist (64636759@N07/Flickr)

While making kombucha is a lengthy process that can take up to two weeks to complete one batch, and perfecting the recipe to your own taste will involve making many batches, there is perhaps nothing more satisfying than a successful and delicious kitchen experiment.

The process described in this post was based off of kombucha recipes from The Kitchn and Food52.

References cited

  1. Thoughts on Re-steeping. Teatrekker’s Blog. 22 Sept, 2013.
  2. Science of Bread: Yeast is Fussy about Temperature. Exploratorium.
  3. McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
  4. pH Values of Common Drinks. Robert B. Shelton, DDS MAGD.
  5. Singh, S., Jindal, R. Evaluating the buffering capacity of various soft drinks, fruit juices and tea. Journal of Conservative Dentistry, 2013; 13(3): 129-131.
  6. Rault, A. Bouix, M., Béal, C. Fermentation pH Influences the Physiological-State Dynamics of Lactobacillus bulgaricus CFL1 during pH-Controlled Culture. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, July 2009; 75(13): 4374-4381.
  7. Hwang, J. W., Yang, Y. K., Hwang, J. K., Pyun, Y. R., Kim, Y. S. Effects of pH and dissolved oxygen on cellulose production by Acetobacter xylinum BRC5 in agitated culture, 1999; 88(2): 183-188.
  8. Take a Break from Making Kombucha Tea. Cultures for Health.
  9. Lahtinen, S. J., Ouwehand, A. C., Reinikainen, J. P., Korpela, J. M., Sandholm, J., Salminen, S. J. Intrinsic Properties of So-Called Dormant Probiotic Bacteria, Determined by Flow Cytometric Viability Assays. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, July 2006; 72(7): 5132-5134.

Alice PhungAbout the author: Alice Phung once had her sights set on an English degree, but eventually switched over to chemistry and hasn’t looked back since.

Read more by Alice Phung


Better Hops & Perfect Wine

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Agricultural geneticist and self-proclaimed “craft beer fanatic”, Sean Myles began breeding hops plants that are resistant to mildew. Other breweries are now using traditional breeding techniques to breed hopes varieties with novel flavors, changing the craft beer game. For wine lovers, there’s Linda Bisson, a yeast geneticist at UC Davis working on the winemaking issue of “stuck” fermentation, a phenomenon when yeast added to wine fail to fully ferment.
Read more

Kombucha Brewing: The Ingredients

Photo credit: thedabblist (64636759@N07/Flickr)

Kombucha with SCOBY. Photo credit: thedabblist (64636759@N07/Flickr)

Craving some kombucha without the grocery store prices? Why not try brewing your own kombucha? As a fermented tea drink that is brightly effervescent, deliciously tangy, and slightly sweet, having some kombucha on hand could add a little spring to these cold seasons. On top of that, the brewing and fermentation involved in kombucha-making requires a little scientific know-how and quite a bit of trial and error to perfect the flavor to your liking. Think of it as having a science experiment in your kitchen!

At first glance, making kombucha appears fairly simple, as there are only four basic ingredients that go into it: water, tea, sugar, and a “Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast,” SCOBY. If a flavored kombucha is desired, specific flavor ingredients can be added too. A cursory investigation into each ingredient, however, may bring up some questions. What type of tea makes the best-tasting kombucha? What is SCOBY and where can you source it? Is it possible to brew a sugar-free kombucha? Here is your scientific guide to making kombucha. We provide some scientific information regarding each component to help make an informed decision in choosing the ingredients that would create the kombucha that best aligns with your preferences.

SCOBY

What is it?

SCOBY is the most important component of kombucha, since it is the only thing standing between ordinary, sweetened tea and kombucha. Other fermented foods which utilize a similar symbiotic culture include kefir, ginger beer, vinegar, and sourdough. SCOBY is a grayish-white or beige, squishy mass floating within the brewed culture, and it is responsible for the distinct vinegar-like flavor, trivial alcohol content, and characteristic carbonation of kombucha. However, to call this leathery, stringy mat a symbiotic colony of microbes is a scientific misnomer. Biologically, a colony implies a coexisting group of individuals within the same species; a microbial colony is a cluster of microorganisms which have descended from a single cell, a common ancestor. SCOBY, on the other hand, is a symbiosis of multiple bacterial and yeast species cohabiting a cellulose matrix [1]. It may be more accurate to describe SCOBY as a biofilm, a colony of several microbial species attached to one another on a surface.

SCOBY

A symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts. Photo credit: Robert Anthony Provost (twon/Flickr)

As the name implies, SCOBY is alive. A study on the microbial populations existing in SCOBY reveals that the bacterial genus Gluconacetobacter is the most abundant [1]. Gluconacetobacter is responsible for the biosynthesis of the cellulose matrix that the SCOBY microbial population resides within. In other words, this genus of bacteria enables easy handling by creating the solid, stringy, floating mass that SCOBY is visually famous for. The next most abundant SCOBY bacteria belong to the genera Acetobacter and Lactobacillus [1], both of which give kombucha its acidic, vinegary taste by oxidizing ethanol to acetic acid and sugar to lactic acid, respectively. The yeast population of SCOBY primarily consists of the genus Zygosaccharomyces [1], which is notable for its high sugar, high alcohol, and high acid tolerance [2]. Yeasts in SCOBY generate CO2 and thus provide carbonation; they also produce alcohol, some of which is metabolized by Acetobacter into acetic acid. It is worth noting that the microbial composition of SCOBY may vary over time [1], possibly due to rapid growth, contamination, and/or random mutations. This compositional change may lead to flavor differences among different batches that have used the same SCOBY.

Where do I get it?

Home-brewing stores and online marketplaces are the more common places to buy SCOBY. For the more ambitious, there is also the option to culture SCOBY at home. Given that it is a collection of living organisms, you need to start with some pre-existing collection of kombucha microbes.

To make SCOBY at home, a modest amount of store-bought or homemade, unflavored and unpasteurized kombucha is required. Kombucha often contains a small amount of SCOBY left behind from the brewing process. To begin, place about 1 cup of kombucha with 7 cups sweet tea in a covered container and store for 1 to 4 weeks. In storage, the SCOBY microbes multiply and aggregate, with Gluconacetobacter synthesizing the cellulose that enables the microorganisms to grow together in that signature rubbery mass. For more detailed instructions, check out The Kitchn’s recipe for home-grown SCOBY.

Teas

Which tea?

Kombucha would not be kombucha without tea, but with so many varieties and forms to choose from, it’s easy to get lost. In general, teas are categorized by how the tea leaves (from the plant, Camellia sinensis) were processed, which affects the flavor, caffeine content, and color of the brewed liquid. Varieties among the basic tea categories arise from the geography of C. sinensis, growing conditions, time of harvest, and production processing, giving rise to notable flavor differences. The type of tea chosen will influence the prominent flavor profile of the finished kombucha. For the adventurous, different teas can be mixed together to create a unique kombucha flavor base.

Left to right: green tea, yellow tea, oolong tea, and black tea. Photo credit: Haneburger (Wikimedia Commons)

Left to right: green tea, yellow tea, oolong tea, and black tea. Photo credit: Haneburger (Wikimedia Commons)

  • Black: The most common choice for brewing kombucha, black teas undergo full enzymatic oxidation during production, which gives the drink a dark brown color [3]. Furthermore, complete oxidation of the tea leaves gives black teas a deep malt, caramel, or toasty flavor. This rich tea flavor enables a quick brew without flavor loss during kombucha fermentation.
  • Oolong: Literally translating to “black dragon tea”, oolong teas are partially oxidized, ranging from 8-85% oxidation depending on the tea producer. Oolong flavor profiles fall between the robustness of black teas and the delicacy of green teas, with tones ranging from smoky and buttery to floral and fruity, depending on the amount of oxidation the tea leaves were processed.
  • Green: During production, the oxidation process is stopped early; the tea leaves undergo minimal oxidation, giving green tea a more grassy, floral flavor when compared to other types of teas [3]. Due to their light and subtle flavors, green teas may have to be steeped many times for full flavor, and kombucha with a green tea base may have to be brewed longer.
  • White: Unlike the other teas, white teas are made using only the buds of the C. sinensis plant. Additionally, some white tea varieties use buds that have been steamed or baked, which inactivates enzymatic oxidation. The minimal or absence of oxidation gives white teas a very delicate and subtle grassy flavor, and so this tea may have to be steeped multiple times and a kombucha with a white tea base may have to be brewed for a long time.
  • Pu-erh: Pu-erh stands apart from other teas that use sinensis leaves by an additional fermentation step after the leaves are dried. Fermenting the tea leaves gives pu-erh teas a complex, sweet, earthy flavor profile that the other teas do not have [3].
  • Herbal: Unlike the above four categories, herbal teas rely on steeping plant parts that do not come from sinensis. Herbal teas are strongly advised against for kombucha brewing, as the plants that are used often contain volatile oils that have anti-microbial and/or anti-fungal activity. Some common anti-microbial volatile oils found in herbal teas include lavender oil (from lavender teas), peppermint oil (peppermint teas), and eugenol oil (chai teas) [4], all of which can destroy the bacteria and yeast in SCOBY. A damaged SCOBY will not be able to ferment or carbonate the kombucha batch.

Loose leaf or tea bags?

Tea bags are cheaper and easier to find at the grocery store, but tea bags typically contain fannings or tea dust, which are broken remnants of tea leaves. These remnants were either purposefully crushed for packaging into tea bags or are the leftover fragments after the loose leaf teas are packaged. In contrast, loose leaf teas cost more than their tea bag counterparts and are primarily found in tea specialty stores, but the leaves are much bigger than the fannings found in tea bags. The primary difference between loose leaf and tea bags are the size of the tea leaves, which will affect taste and brew time. Tea leaf sizes do not always correlate to the quality of the tea [5].

Where tea brewing is concerned, fannings have a much greater surface-area-to-volume ratio due to the small particle size, and so will brew much quicker than loose leaf teas. Furthermore, crushed tea leaves may increase the strength of the brewed tea [5]. However, loose leaf teas generally offer more complex, nuanced flavor profiles which tea bags lack. The form of tea to use for brewing kombucha overall depends on personal taste preferences.

Sugar

Which sugar?

At first glance, white sugar seems like the only option, given its ubiquity. For those wishing to experiment a little further, there is no reason to try other sugar sources, since the sugar-metabolizing microbes in SCOBY are not sucrose-specific. There are a couple of notes to consider when choosing the type of sugar:

Brown sugar is sucrose sugar that contains molasses, which may add a molasses flavor to the kombucha.

Raw sugar tend to have bigger crystals, since it is less refined. Bigger sucrose particles may affect its ability to completely dissolve in the kombucha, especially at or below room temperature. If the sugar crystals are not completely dissolved, there may be less sugar in solution available for the bacteria and yeast to metabolize. This could perhaps lead to a more yeasty, rather than fizzy kombucha.

Honey is a mixture of glucose and fructose, with its golden color deriving from non-sugar components such as pollen. Other microorganisms may also be found in honey [6], so using honey for brewing kombucha runs the risk of microbial contamination which may affect SCOBY efficacy.

Sugars extracted from plants or trees other than beets and sugar canes are fair game for brewing kombucha. A few examples include maple syrup, coconut sugar, and palm sugar. Agave nectar, despite health claims, contains a higher fructose content by weight than high fructose corn syrup [7].

Sugar substitutes, such as stevia, xylitol, and glycerol, are sugar alcohols. SCOBY is unable to metabolize sugar alcohols, and so adding artificial sweeteners would not be effective at all in brewing kombucha.

How much sugar?

In kombucha, sugar is used as a food source for the SCOBY, not as a sweetener as in many other recipes. The end product has far less sugar than was originally added to the first fermentation period, as the SCOBY has metabolized most of it to create the vinegary flavor and carbonation. Therefore, adding sugar is necessary for successful fermentation.

Too little sugar, and the SCOBY does not have the necessary fuel to undergo prolonged fermentation, leading to an unsweet, not very acidic, and possibly flat kombucha. Too much sugar may cause the yeast to over-proliferate, outnumbering the other SCOBY microbes. This both decreases the efficacy of the SCOBY and decreases the flavor and carbonation of the resulting kombucha. The exact amount of sugar varies among recipes, and can be experimented with to suit personal preferences.

Flavorings

For a more unique kombucha, flavors are often added near the end of the kombucha brewing process, after the batch has undergone its initial fermentation period. Just like every other component that goes into kombucha, the choices for flavoring are abundant.

Herbs and spices: Since herbs and spices tend to have strong flavors, adding a little bit can go a long way. Keep the amount to a minimum, as some herbs and spices may contain antimicrobial activity, and adding too much may harm the microbes on SCOBY, making the second fermentation period unlikely to occur successfully.

Fruits: Whether fresh fruit or fruit juice is used, be sure to keep an eye on the batch after adding the fruits. Fruits and fruit juices introduce an extra sugar source for the SCOBY during the second fermentation period; the yeast cultures in the SCOBY go into “overdrive” with this added amount of sugar. While this may lead to a fizzier kombucha, the increased carbonation will create a pressure-build up within the container. Opening the container may risk a small kombucha explosion or the container may burst open from the pressure built up.

Kombucha flavored with raspberries. Photo credit: Lukas Chin (Wikimedia Commons)

Kombucha flavored with raspberries. Photo credit: Lukas Chin (Wikimedia Commons)

Extracts and infused waters: Like herbal teas, be sure that the extracts are oil-free as to avoid volatiles that contain anti-microbial activity. A few examples of water-based extracts would be lemon extract (not lemon oil), almond extract, and vanilla. Infused waters include rose water and orange blossom water.

With a little bit of background knowledge, kombucha brewing could become your favorite science project. Explore the possibilities!

References cited

  1. Marsh, A. J., O’Sullivan, O., Hill, C., Ross, R. P., Cotter, P. D. Sequence-based analysis of the bacterial and fungal compositions of multiple kombucha (tea fungus) samples. Food Microbiology, April 2014; 38:171-178.
  2. C. Fugelsang, “Zygosaccharomyces, A Spoilage Yeast Isolated from Grape Juice.”
  3. Types of Tea. TeaSource. 2013.
  4. Thosar, N., Basak, S., Bahadure, R. N., Rajurkar, M. Antimicrobial efficacy of five essential oils against oral pathogens: An in vitro European Journal of Dentistry, Sept 2013; 7:71-77.
  5. Does the size of your tea leaf matter? Octavia Tea. 18 November, 2011.
  6. Olaitan, P. B., Adeleke, O. E., Ola, I. O. Honey: a reservoir for microorganisms and an inhibitory agent for microbes. African Health Sciences, Sept 2007; 7(3):159-165.
  7. Bowden, Jonny. Debunking the Blue Agave Myth. Huffington Post. 17 April, 2010.

Alice PhungAbout the author: Alice Phung once had her sights set on an English degree, but eventually switched over to chemistry and hasn’t looked back since.

Read more by Alice Phung


Sour Beers & Skunky Beers

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“Fermenting yeasts produce more than just ethanol and carbon dioxide. They make flavorful, aromatic molecules: acids and esters. But which ones make which ones?” wonders William Bostwick as he attempts to recreate a sour beer in his kitchen in San Francisco’s Mission District. If you’re more interested in preventing your beer from getting skunky than making your own, we found some chemistry to help you out.
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Could Making Beer From Sewage Save Us From The Drought?

[Photo Credit: Vince C Reyes]

[Photo Credit: Vince C Reyes]

The historic drought in California and other U.S. states challenges us to rethink the way food production and consumption shapes our available water supply. To that end, one adventurous brewing club, The Oregon Brew Crew, collaborated with Oregon’s water utility, Clean Water Services, to brew beer from waste water. This comes as part of the water utility’s initiative to make better use of recycled water. As beer is 95% water, we could potentially save significant volumes of water through this less glamorous route.1

To be clear, the brewers did not make beer straight from water entering out of the toilets and sewers of Oregon. Clean Water Services provided the brewers with “ultrapure water” for making their beer. Ultrapure water is made from water that is purified using the most advanced water treatment methods available. Ultrapure water is not new, but is normally not used for brewing. It is traditionally used for generating water for electronics and pharmaceuticals production, scientific research, or any other application where water must be free from as many contaminants as possible.

To generate ultrapure water, Clean Water Services combines traditional wastewater treatment with more advanced methods. For this process, sewage is first cleaned using traditional wastewater treatment, which includes screening, sedimentation, biological treatment, and disinfection. After this step, the sewage is fit to be released to lakes and rivers, but gets a deeper cleaning through more advanced methods. In the case of the water used by the brewers, Clean Water Services uses a three-step process of Ultrafiltration, Reverse Osmosis, and Enhanced Oxidation to produce their ultrapure water.

The water is first subject to Ultrafiltration and Reverse Osmosis. These processes work like a kitchen sieve as they push water through small pores in a barrier to separate water from different molecules. While both Ultrafiltration and Reverse Osmosis use similar physical separation mechanisms, they vary in the products they can remove from water because of their differing pore sizes. Ultra-filtration can be used to remove particles as small as viruses and bacteria (0.005 – 0.5 μm), while Reverse Osmosis uses finer pores, which can remove even smaller molecules like herbicides, pesticides, salts, and metal ions (0.0001 – 0.001 μm) (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The size of materials that can be removed by Ultrafiltration and Reverse osmosis. Figure Credit: Designerwater.co

Figure 1: The size of materials that can be removed by Ultrafiltration and Reverse osmosis. [Figure Credit: Designerwater.co]

In contrast to Ultrafiltration and Reverse Osmosis, the final step, Enhanced Oxidation, uses chemical methods to eliminate any remaining unwanted products in water. Specifically, Enhanced Oxidation uses ultraviolet (UV) light in combination with chemicals like hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and ozone (O3) to generate hydroxyl radicals. The high energy from the UV light breaks down chemical bonds to form hydroxyl radicals (·OH). For example, here is the break down of hydrogen peroxide by UV light:

H2O2  + UV -> 2·OH

A hydroxyl radical is just a hydrogen atom bonded to an oxygen atom with an extra electron. Having an extra electron makes hydroxyl radicals very reactive and can break down undesirable molecules in water. This final step removes any remaining contaminants that were not eliminated by Ultrafiltration and Reverse Osmosis.

Figure 2: Ultrapure water (high purity water) compared to river water, cleaned sewage water, and tap water. [Image Credit: huffingtonpost.com]

Figure 2: Ultrapure water (high purity water) compared to river water, cleaned sewage water, and tap water. [Image Credit: huffingtonpost.com]

After these three treatments, the ultrapure water was ready to be used for brewing. In regards to taste, this process produced bland tasting water that results from the absence of minerals and salts that are normally found in water from groundwater, reservoirs, lakes, rivers, and the tap2. These atoms and molecules can be challenging for brewers, as they impart a natural flavor to waters that may not be congruent with the desired beer’s flavor profile3. Instead, when using ultrapure water, the brewers had the freedom to build in whichever flavors they desired. The hops, grains, yeast, and additional spices controlled the beer’s flavor profile rather than the water.

Currently in the U.S., recycled water typically cannot be used directly as drinking water, regardless of how much it is cleaned. Generally, recycled water is only used to water landscape, cool power plants, or flush the toilet. But with growing concerns over shrinking water sources, these views are changing. In 2010, a study by the California State Water Board examined the potential contaminants in recycled water, current water treatment technology, and human health studies of exposure to these contaminants. The conclusion was that recycled water could be safe for human consumption4. These results have been confirmed by other research as well5.

Projects like this may cause you to re-evaluate your bias about the source of your water (and beer). Regardless of the origin of your water, advances in water treatment technologies may enable us to produce safe drinking water from wastewater. But the question still remains: would you feel comfortable raising a glass of beer made from recycled waste water to your lips or would you pour it down the drain?

Learn More

  1. Water and Wasterwaster: Treatment/Volume Reduction ManualBrewers Association.
  2. Is Sewage Beer The Next Big Thing?Huffington Post.
  3. To Grow A Craft Beer Business, The Secret’s In The WaterNPR: The Salt.
  4. Final Report: Monitoring Strategies for Chemicals of Emerging Concern (CECs) in Recycled WaterState Water Resources Control Board.
  5. Rodriguez, C., Buynder, P.V., Lugg, R., Blair, P., Devine, B., Cook, A., Weinstein, P. Indirect Potable Reuse: A Sustainable Water Supply Alternative. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. March 2009; 6(3): 1174-1209.

Vince ReyesAbout the author: Vince C Reyes earned his Ph.D. in Civil Engineering at UCLA. Vince loves to explore the deliciousness of all things edible.

Read more by Vince Reyes


Beer

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with a frosty glass of beer? Before taking that first sip, consider these quick facts about the science behind the many complexities in beer flavors. Now that’s something to raise your glass to! Read more

Coffee Brewing Methods

Gone are the days where all that was needed to make a cup of brewed coffee was an auto-drip machine and a paper filter. Coffee shops now have glass siphons lining the counter, looking as if they came straight from a chemistry lab. Baristas can be seen meticulously pouring water from a swan necked kettle into a ceramic funnel, which slowly drips coffee into a cup sitting on a scale. There is even a ready-to-serve cold brew option that was prepared the night before. These days, coffee shops seem to be stocked with new tools for brewing the delicious caffeinated beverage. With the resulting brews varying in flavor, why stick to just one method? Each apparatus has a different extraction process and requirements for grind coarseness, heat, and time.

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A cup of coffee. Photo Credit: (Julius Schorzman/Wikimedia Commons)

For all brewing methods, coffee must first be ground; then its soluble components must be dissolved in water, so they are released into the resulting brew. It is suggested to grind coffee right before brewing, since the process releases flavor as well as results in a higher perceptions of aromas; these aromas consist of highly volatile compounds which can evaporate into the air over time [1]. The grind level and particle size also play important roles in the taste of the final cup of coffee. If the grind is too fine, bitter coffee can result from over-extraction of chlorogenic acids; if the grind is too coarse, a weaker brew may result from the decreased surface area [2].

Coffee brewing is generally classified under three types: decoction, infusion or steeping, and pressure methods.

Decoction: Siphon

In decoction, ground coffee is in contact with high temperature water for a period of time, causing a more intense extraction [2]. Siphon, or vacuum brewed coffee, is an example of this method. Since many variables can be controlled, the coffee can be evenly extracted over a period of 45 seconds to 1 minute [3].

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Siphon. Photo Credit: Janne Moren (JanneM/Flickr)

A siphon consists of two glass chambers arranged vertically. Near boiling water is added to the bottom chamber with a heat source underneath. When the water is heated past its boiling point (212 °F or 100 °C), the heat source transfers energy to the water and produces vapor, or steam. Eventually, the pressure created from the gas exceeds that of the atmospheric pressure in the siphon. In order to create more room for itself in the bottom chamber, the gas forces the remaining liquid into the upper chamber. The coffee grounds are added at this point and stirred. The heat source maintains a constant pressure, keeping the brew in the upper chamber. Once the brew is complete, the heat source is removed and the water vapor condenses back into liquid form. Since liquid takes up less volume than gas in the bottom chamber, a negative pressure void is created that is then equalized by the brew flowing down [4].

Infusion/Steeping: Chemex

An infusion involves steeping coffee in water before filtration, and creates a milder brew with more acidity [2]. An example is the Chemex, which is a funnel shaped apparatus with a pour over filter cone attached to a decanter. This is similar to a typical auto-drip coffeemaker where the coffee is steeped and dripped through a paper filter. However, the Chemex has some advantages, including control over water temperature, infusion time, and pouring technique. The filter used is also thicker, so the grounds are able to steep in the water and drip out more slowly. More flavor compounds are released, resulting in a clean tasting brew with “bright” and “high” notes [5].

Chemex. Amy Roth (minimallyinvasivenj/Flickr)

Chemex. Amy Roth (minimallyinvasivenj/Flickr)

To prepare coffee with the Chemex, a medium to medium-coarse grind is placed on top of a pre-rinsed filter. Hot water is poured from a swan neck kettle (the narrow spout maximizes pour control) in a circular motion. As the first pour touches the coffee grounds, it degasses and carbon dioxide (CO2) is released, resulting in bubbles and puffed up grounds. This is called a “bloom,” and this process influences the flavor and aromas of the brew, including increased acidity if the bloom time proceeds for too long [6]. The reasoning behind this is that when CO2 reacts with water, it produces carbonic acid. Interestingly, lighter roasted coffee beans retain more CO2 than darker roasts [7].

CO2 (aq) + H2O (aq) « H2CO3 (aq)

Once the gas is released, the water starts to dissolve the solubles in the coffee grind, which are responsible for many of the flavor components. As the brew starts to drip into the decanter, additional water is poured in the same circular motion to make sure that the grounds are constantly replenished with fresh water [6]. The grounds must always be immersed to maintain a constant temperature for the brew and to keep the chemical reactions going. This method also creates a strong osmotic pressure to extract the coffee concentrate from the grounds: since there are more coffee solutes in the grind and less in the watery environment, the solutes will want to escape through the semi-permeable cell membranes of the coffee beans. However, since water is continuously poured over the surface of the grounds, there is a possibility of over extraction from the top layer [7].

Pressure: Moka pot

Unlike decoction and infusion, this method involves water being forced through grounds with high pressure and heat, similar to the style of espresso [2]. The Moka pot consists of a bottom chamber with water, a metal filter filled with ground coffee, and a screw-on upper chamber.

Moka pot during extraction process. Photo Credit: (RyAwesome/Flickr)

Moka pot during extraction process. Photo Credit: (RyAwesome/Flickr)

Similar to the siphon, a heat source causes the water in the bottom chamber to form steam. However, instead of mixing the water with coffee for steeping, the water vapor pushes the water through the coffee grounds and the brew emerges out of the top portion as a gurgling sound is made. The bottom chamber is not filled all the way with water to ensure an air gap for pressure to form. In fact, in case the pressure in the bottom chamber gets too high, there is a safety valve on the lower chamber that lets the air out to keep the apparatus from exploding.

With all of these different options, brewing coffee is now more of an art form than just a way to obtain caffeine. Whether you use a Moka pot at home or have a barista prepare a cup using a pour over method, you can be sure that each resulting brew will be far from tasting the same.

References cited

  1. Akiyama, M., Murakami, K., Ohtani, N., Iwatsuki, K., Sotoyama, K., Wada, A., et al. Analysis of Volatile Compounds Released During the Grinding of Roasted Coffee Beans Using Solid-Phase Microextraction. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. July 2013; 51: 1961–1969.
  2. Sunarharum W, Williams D, Smyth H. Complexity of coffee flavor: A compositional and sensory perspective. Food Research International. March 2014; 62: 315-325.
  3. How to Brew Coffee in a Siphon or Vacuum Brewer. Seriouseats.
  4. Vacuum Pots: The Science Behind the Method. Casa Brasil Coffees.
  5. A Beginners Guide to Pour Over Coffee Brewing. Prima Coffee.
  6. What is the Bloom and Why Should You Care? The Roasters Pack.
  7. Coffee Science: How to Make the Best Pourover Coffee at Home. Seriouseats.

Catherine HuAbout the author: Catherine Hu is pursuing her B.S. in Psychobiology at UCLA. When she is not writing about food science, she enjoys exploring the city and can often be found enduring long wait times to try new mouthwatering dishes.

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